Celibacy, and can men and women be friends?

A reader asked an interesting question about celibacy and relationships,

“I’m curious about whether you think men and women can develop a deeply loving relationships with each other, including a tactile, co-habiting relationship, without that relationship ever crossing the boundary and becoming a sexual relationship. I guess this is a variation on the question in ‘When Harry Met Sally’ about whether men and women can ever really be just friends. I believe they can.

Is it possible to develop a deeply loving hetero/homo relationship without physical/sexual consummation, especially if you wish to abide by Buddhist principles? Is it possible for such a relationship to be based on mutual celibacy? Do you think that a relationship may flourish and bloom if couples were to abstain from sex for weeks or months, so sex is not a distraction, and allow the relationship to become ‘centred’ again, and then resume sex at a later point?”

‘When Harry Met Sally’ originally had a different ending. Harry and Sally didn’t marry, but stayed friends. Both the writer and director thought that was closer to the truth.

At the monastery I train in, male and female monks live and work side by side, 24 hours a day. There are some very deep friendships there which don’t play themselves out sexually. They have chosen to be a celibate order, so if they wish to have a sexual relationship, they would have to leave their equivalent of work, family and spiritual vocation in order to pursue it. (In this post I’m mostly addressing your question, “is it possible”. The reasons for celibacy are another topic.)

To help with celibacy they’re not tactile either, so this example won’t entirely answer your question. One thing worth knowing though is that intimacy doesn’t require physicality. I guess that sounds crazy to some, because it did to me, until I experienced myself how it really was possible to be very close to others without sexuality having to play itself out.

The next thing people tend to imagine when I tell them about that scenario, is the insane amount of sexual tension there must be. I hate to disappoint, but there isn’t. Sexuality isn’t an unknown wild force that we have to either a) suppress, or b) leave to rage out of control. Like any strong emotion, if we get to know it patiently and intimately through meditation, it stops dictating to us what we want to do.

For example I used to think that if you’re attracted to someone and it’s mutual, then you have to act on it. Visceral emotions backed this belief up. When practising celibacy however I found that being attracted to someone without acting on it was like standing in a storm, but choosing not to get blown off my feet. Then with practice, it became effortless. It just popped up as an awareness, “Ah yes I’m attracted to you, but it’s no big deal and it doesn’t mean anything.”

To my surprise I found that that’s where a clearer and deeper trust and closeness emerged, which I’d never experienced before. Crucially, I realised that I’d been lying to myself. There are people whom we don’t want to sleep with, but we do anyway, and when that happens the dust gets kicked up and all sorts of stupidity emerges. Holding back until I was sure was more honest, more dignified and made me a lot happier.

Realising that it’s a choice makes new monastic trainees a lot calmer. They’ve committed to celibacy, so there’s no point in entertaining all the pre-sexual games we “normal” people play such as flirtation and obsessive fantasy. In their position, to play them would be to lie to themselves and split the mind: committing to one thing, but then deliberately telling the body something else. To someone who wants peace of mind, that isn’t an option.

That doesn’t mean that sexuality goes out the window. Unless you’re naturally asexual or have attained a near-mythical ‘higher state’, it’s still there as an integral human emotion. Shamanic practitioners say we can channel that same energy into creativity and affluence.

Either way, it doesn’t mean that we must have sex. Plenty of people don’t, and remain very happy (if not happier, even, than the average person – since they’re not kicking up all that dust :-) )

Of course it’s easier to accept all that when you’re sitting on your own. Choosing to be in a celibate relationship with someone who also has a sexuality – so anyone, really – increases the difficulty exponentially. Certainly it’s possible, but for intimate partnerships without sex the following would need to be in place.

1. You’ve mutually agreed on celibacy and on how far you’ll go physically.
2. You’ve both developed self-awareness and control to the point where you’re able to carry through your intentions.
3. Each person has decided this of their own accord, for positive reasons; not because they think they should, are doing it to get something, or think they don’t have any better choice.

As for “just friendships” this is equally valid, only it’s less likely to be spoken about in detail (that might be weird). I have a handful of close straight male friends, but it took some doing. First everyone involved had to let go of the idea that if you fancy each other, or if you feel a little insecure or a little horny etc., then you should try to have sex. That belief has an unfortunate tendency to undermine good friendship. It’s so much easier when – usually through bitter experience – everyone’s developed a clearer idea of

1. What they want
2. The things that can support or undermine that
3. An internal source of security in their lives, which doesn’t depend on the desire of or for others.

My friends and I don’t try to hide the fact that everyone has a sexuality, but we definitely don’t give mixed messages either. In some cases we both assumed that we’d “just” be friends because there were no signs of mutual attraction. In other cases there were some signs, so one of us would say early on in the friendship something along the lines of, “are we friends, or is there something more?” I used to be terrified of conversations like that, but once you’ve ticked all the above bullet points, it’s just an honest and respectful conversation which actually feels like a relief.

If the answer to that question is friendship, the reply might be “I’m attracted to you, but it isn’t something I want to pursue in that way.” The other person is then hopefully secure enough not to take that personally; chances are in fact that it isn’t personal. If they can’t accept the answer then they can’t be present as a friend because they’ll always be thinking of “something more”, blaming the other person for their feelings of abandonment, or worse – and commonly – both.

Is it Buddhist to be celibate?

It is when Buddhists do it ;-)  From a scriptural point of view this can be a tough call, because the Buddha’s advice was largely geared towards celibate monastics. But he also respected families and non-monastics, and there are traditions where monks have families. So far as I’m aware, no genuine Buddhist teacher has claimed that celibacy is the right thing for everyone to do at all times.

To me, the answer lies in how you do it. It’s freeing to recognise that sexuality is an emotion, not a need – regardless of what our reptile brains are telling us. You could be celibate for the wrong reasons, or sexual for the wrong reasons; likewise celibacy could be right for you, or engaging in sexuality could be right for you. Some key guidelines are, is it the right thing to do from both yours and others’ point of view? What impact might it have on yours and others’ lives? Will it be beneficial? What is the wish that underlies your choice? Is anything being suppressed or forced? Are you subconsciously holding on to prejudices such as “celibacy is virtuous, sexuality is filthy”, or vice versa – “sex is normal, celibacy is uptight”? Are you letting fear of solitude, physical aversion or spiritual greed influence your choice?

I got so much from a period of celibacy, as have many other Buddhists I’ve spoken to. It’s like stepping back and getting a bigger picture, before re-entering the human fray with more clarity and direction than before. There’s no reason why two partners in relationship couldn’t do that as you suggest, if they decide to together. There are certainly couples who are doing it successfully.

I’d be careful though of choosing celibacy because it might be a Buddhist thing to do. The initiative should come from a place inside, in response to your particular circumstances. You and your circumstances are always changing, so it isn’t a choice that it would be healthy to decide on in the abstract, or in advance.

There can be the temptation to fantasise about celibate relationship. Perhaps this is more common among those with ambitions in spiritual training. We’ve figured out that sexual fantasies aren’t constructive, so we use celibate fantasies as a loophole! Alas these are just as unhelpful as the sexual ones. They undermine your perception of reality, and ability to make the best of what you already have.

What’s the point of being in a relationship if you’re not going to have sex?

This wasn’t in the original question, but I’ve often heard it asked. If you can’t see the point in celibacy then it probably isn’t for you, so there’s no need to worry about it.

The wording of the question suggests that sex is the only point in having a relationship however, which would be worrying. Removing sex from the equation – at least temporarily – can actually increase intimacy and trust, and I’d be wary of using sex either as a shortcut to ‘get’ them, or to deflect a fear of them.

Having said that, for many couples, even if sex isn’t of absolute and central importance, removing it from the equation altogether would be like removing something integral and natural to the way they relate to each other.

Each couple, and each individual, has to find their own way.


Article in the Guardian: Men and Women at the Monastery

23rd November 2012

Comments (3)

  1. Thanks for this sound and broad exploration – I’ll be digesting it and hope to respond at some point. I saw the title of the article a while back, now being a useful time to read it as Im contemplating similar questions. Some insights here are really useful and helpful to me…sounds like you have experience that’s beneficial. Till soon!

  2. It is difficult to plummet your personal depths to see really where my desire or yearning for a man/’the other’ comes from. I find it very difficult to know if I want to be with someone and and in what way or not. What impulses and desires to act on and which to not.
    I feel the comments here are very valuable. Yet insecurities, human attachment and fear of loneliness I think are within all of us. And if we are in a romantic relationship we could question deeply why, what are the illusions and realities we are living, or alternatively just get on with it, and do our best.
    The article helps with being mindful for deciding what it is we want, communicating clearly and highlights the freedom to not act on our sexual desire, and in fact cautions us against following it until we are sure. That’s helpful. Desire and attraction to the potential love and acceptance we feel from the other can be very attractive to us also (and it can tie in with familial and cultural models and expectations) – ha whether to take this path or the monastic one – very personal and has been a question for a long time!

    • Good points Naomi… re-reading my post some time after I wrote it, there’s so much more to say on the topic of sexual attraction! This post was mostly about celibacy, which just isn’t relevant to most readers xx

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